The Art of Watching and Listening

Early on, two things shaped me and, I suspect, destined me to write. One was my birth, and the second the mumps.

Where I learned to watch!

Watching and remembering. So—birth. It was a dark, stormy day from all accounts—lightning everywhere on the Illinois plain. I was breach and blue. The doctors told my parents to watch my early development, concerned about brain damage. For sixteen months, I proceeded to scare my parents witless. Until one day, bored and thirsty, I stood up, walked into the kitchen, and asked for a drink of water, as in spoke in a sentence—all firsts. My mother dropped the glass in her hand. I watched it fall and shatter.

I had sixteen whole months to loll around and observe. Sixteen months to make sure when I stood, I was ready to speak up for myself. Yes, I sat wherever I was set. But I had fun, kept my own counsel, didn’t look stupid crawling around on the floor making silly slurpy, meaningless sounds. As a result, my memories begin well before my first birthday. When I was six months old, I watched my sister run away from home, her belongings strapped to the back of her tricycle. Frankly, I was glad to see her go. She teased me—a lot.

Since then, I have never stopped studying people, animals, trees, the sky, and….

Listening and hearing. The mumps. I lost the hearing in one ear. It never bothered me. I think because I was so young. It’s a U-shaped loss, so I can hear dog-whistles and stealthy sounds in that ear, just not anything anyone says. It’s handy when you’re in a house full of snorers. Trust me.

Hearing in a crowded room is easy for other people because they don’t have to sift a voice from the background jabber. They can look around the room, check to see if any other conversations are as lively. But they may miss the raised eyebrows, pursed lips, quick smiles, or rolled eyes that are the reveal. To hear, I cock my good ear towards the speaker and lean into a conversation. I listen to cadence, tone, emotion, hesitations. Sound is precious to me.

Employing them. So, the ability to sit quietly, listen, and watch undistracted has to be an asset for a writer. At least, I keep telling myself that. For instance, I’m sure we’ve all imagined something sinister afloat while relaxing at a favorite place. If not, I highly recommend it.

You’re at the beach. A man scrunching through the squeaky sand catches your eye. He is rushing toward a flight of stairs, his pant legs flapping against his shins, his hair ruffling in the onshore breeze. Overhead, clouds bunch, dark in their bellies, readying to rain. Water thunders against rocks, spuming into the air. A kestrel screeches as it rides the thermals. Its beady-eyes locked on the rocks below. Floating in kelp, an otter wonders—just wonders, like they do, and watches a body rocking, cradled in a tidal pool.

You’re in the mountains.My book Saving Calypso takes place in the High Sierra, a place I adore:

A redwood, a hundred and fifty feet of emotion, tossed its head. A hawk flew. A rabbit beat-feet across the pasture toward the newly turned dirt for this year’s vegetable garden. A shadow cruised at the edge of the timber then cut across the open field. Rafe Bolt slapped a brace of rabbits on the porch boards at Jessie’s feet. She put her hands behind her head and sighed at life’s perfection.

Words as motion, sound, feeling, life

Next time something unusual catches your eye, stop, watch, and listen as though you’re half-deaf and were a bit slow to stand, walk, and talk. It will be time well spent.

Comfort in These Trying Times

I don’t know about you, but I’m edgy most of the time and worried the rest of it. The Creek Fire is burning a scant few miles away, and we’ve been living under an evacuation warning for weeks now. Of course, there is Covid-19, and now, RBG. Sigh!

At times like this, I find comfort in books. Not any books, but those books, the ones that mark your passages, the ones you’ve never forgotten because at that moment in your life they were perfect.

My mother’s copy, published in 1932

Lately, I’ve been thinking about three books that I liberated as a pre-teen from a dusty shelf above the stairs in our house in Michigan. The books were thin volumes, simply bound, in varying colors, with black titles embossed on the cloth bindings—Madge Sterling Mysteries, by Ann Wirt. I remember the feeling of anticipation as I lifted The Missing Formula from the shelf. Next thing I knew, I’d been swept away. I consumed all three of the slight books, one a day for three days, perched on a stair, reading in the stairwell light. They were mysteries—not Nancy Drew, or Hardy Boys—but mysteries with an engaging female alone in the world, armed only with her lively mind.

First Edition- not mine, alas!

I never forgot Madge, even after I discovered Mary Stewart, who transported me first to the Isle of Skye, then to the South of France, to Crete, to Corfu to the world. And she brought romantic suspense gently into my reading. I have never fully recovered from Richard Byron in Madam, Will You Talk? or Simon Lester in My Brother Michael. Oh, there have been other men, but Richard is waiting for me in a courtyard in Avignon and Simon to drive me to Delphi. I know they are!

Reading Mary Stewart was the first time I experienced world-building, though I never would have used those exact words. Nothing is as soothing as crawling into a carefully constructed world that teaches you, woos you, and entices you to belong. A place you want to stay for a while or maybe forever.

Which brings me to the Amelia Peabody books. Each book should come with a warning that to venture with Amelia into the Valley of the Kings is to slip into a parallel universe from which there is no return. My favorite Amelia Peabody books are the four that take place during World War I. I love them. I read them when I need to return to a time of wry humor, careful history, joyous family, and adventure. Elizabeth Peters, Barbara Mertz to the world, left us real treasures in these books.  Start with Crocodile on the Sandbank, but rush to The Falcon at the Portal.

The legacy of all of these ladies accompanies me when I write, though I know full well I’m not in their league. Sure, I have read the gents, lots and lots of mysteries, thrillers, and suspense by men. I adored Travis McGee and Lew Archer, trust me. But these ladies of mystery taught me everything.

First, have fun! Second, build a world that your readers can wander into and not want to leave. Third, make your heroes “all damn and dark your eyes,” even if they are blonds, and your heroines lively and ready to learn more than they ever wanted to know about themselves. As one reader of my first book, Perfidia wrote, “I really enjoyed this book because you can escape from the real world for a time. I loved the characters and did not want the book to end. Can’t miss with Islands, Ocean, Pirates and History.”

Maybe someday her daughter will grab a book from the stairwell and read: “My father, Del Lassiter, is a handsome man in his early fifties. Dark hair shot through with gray, blue eyes coupled with a nice easy smile that makes him the darling of all his female acquaintances whom he dates prodigiously but never marries. My girlfriends all adore him, especially my best friend, Gail. When he pours his honeyed-peanut voice over them, they swoon.”

And I wrote . . .

This is my first outing for Ladies of Mystery, and it is an honor. I should introduce myself. First and foremost, I consider myself a Mid-Westerner, though I’ve lived in most parts of the country and in Barbados. I come from a long line of Illinois farmers who produced my wanderlust father. When my family moved from the Mid-West to Colorado, my classmates were worried that I wouldn’t be able to keep in contact. I assured them that phones and mailboxes existed out there, too. But what a change! I went from a large multi-racial high school to a wee one with one Hispanic and one Asian in my class. Holy smokes!

I became an officer in the U.S. Navy right out of college, a B.S. in Journalism from the University of Colorado clutched in my fist. When I mustered out, I used my GI Bill to help fund an M.S. from Northwestern University. I clearly have an affinity for working in male-dominated environments. First, the Navy, then years in advertising, think Mad Men.

Along the way, I met this guy. After the yes, I worked in educational assessment for a Fortune 500 company, trained readers to score student writing, worked as a consultant to State Departments of Education, and as Director of the Proposal Development Center responsible for obtaining multi-million dollar contracts.

And I wrote. You’ll find my two standalone thrillers, Perfidia and Saving Calypso, and the first two books of my series, the Cooper Vietnam Era Quartet, on Amazon.

The Cooper Quartet is dear to my heart. I served in the Navy at the bitter, and I mean bitter, end of the Vietnam War. I worked alongside Navy pilots at my command. I had many carrier pilot and rescue pilot friends at Naval Air Station Lemoore. And befriended one special SEAL. And they talked about the War.

For years, I carried around their stories and hurt, enhanced by my travails as a young woman in the Navy. Frankly, the stories gnawed until I started writing Dead Legend, the first book in the Cooper Quartet. I thought Dead Legend would be a standalone, then Head First challenged me to spit it out. Are the stories true? I assure you that in all matters Navy, Ensign Robin Haas speaks for me.

The third book in the series, Pay Back, is available on September 1. It propels the Cooper saga through the Fall of Saigon (April 1975) and the changing world back home. According to BookLife: “This wartime thrill ride turns the waning days of the U.S.’s involvement in Vietnam into a pulse-pounding, smart tale of suspense.”  Pay Back is available at : https://www.amazon.com/Pay-Back-Cooper-Vietnam-Quartet-ebook/dp/B08CJDHP92

Over the four books, the Cooper Quartet covers the arc of the War’s impact on Americans, the Vietnamese, the French colonialists, as well as the women who served. It would be wonderful if the Quartet enhanced readers’ understanding of how the Vietnam Era changed our society, and, ultimately, our country. To celebrate the publication of Pay Back, Dead Legend is free on Amazon September 1 – 5 for anyone wanting to begin where the saga began.

For more about my books or me, check out https://dzchurch.com. Leave me a note if you’d like me to blog about a specific topic. I can hardly wait for the next fourth Thursday of the month.  See you then!